Stand up to these bullies of industry

Major advertisers have become as a big a threat, if not worse, to press freedom in Uganda as political forces.

How many political groups would have gotten away with the deceptive full page advertisement that appeared in both the Daily Monitor and The New Vision on Monday?

The ad had an official looking red stamp with the words IMPORTANT.
At the top, “Cellphone users of Uganda” we were told “This message is brought to you in the interest of fair and open competition.”

The key message in the ad was that low call rates offered by ‘small networks’ “can be deceptive; they won’t save you as much money as you might think”. The advertiser went ahead to illustrate this claim. The major argument was that because “6 out of every 10 calls are made on Uganda’s biggest network” and “because more people are on this network”, cell phone users would save more money by using it. The ad had a table that showed how much a user would save by being on the “biggest network”. In addition, the ad claimed that because the biggest network is designed to handle lots of calls, users’ “calls are clearer too”.

Some of these claims may well be accurate, although I have my doubts about the last one (certainly Uganda Communications Commission figures don’t appear to support it).

So why have I been worked up by the ad?

Well, because the agency that booked it decided to dupe the public by not naming the advertiser. This ad was obviously designed to benefit the “biggest network” (to play their game, let’s not name names). It would have read a lot more like the usual market competition if the advertiser had been named. The advertising agency (advertising agencies are companies that buy and place adverts on behalf of their clients) decided to make it look like some public interest campaign.

This is unethical and it stinks.

I have spoken to senior newsroom colleagues at The New Vision and Daily Monitor and they all agree. Advertisers should be named.

Part of the problem is that as our newspapers have grown into big businesses with many different departments, we have seen the emergence of powerful advertising and marketing managers (and in some cases finance managers) whose philosophy about what is acceptable is not always at par with traditional journalistic orthodoxy.

These business managers supervise hundreds of advertising executives who are often paid on commission basis. The more business they bring in, the more their commission. Some business managers also get fat bonuses as a result of the good performance of say their advertising executives. For such people, the first instinct is to accept the advert, not to question its integrity or that of the advertiser.

From my experience, I would not put it beyond some advertising executives and managers to sneak offending ads into a newspaper without consulting the editor, who is ultimately responsible for all the content of the paper.

Some media chief executives tend to side with their advertising and marketing managers because of the bottom line pressures they have to deal with themselves.

On the other hand major advertisers sometimes behave like they are gods. They know that they spend a lot of money on media houses so they sometimes try to dictate what is acceptable, with threats of withdrawing their advertising if their demands are not met. That partly explains the preponderance of promotional information masquerading as news in the prime pages of our newspapers.

In the past, some advertisers have sneaked in adverts disguised as news in order to dupe readers (Journalism ethics demand that advertisements are clearly flagged as such in order not to mislead audiences).

I know of some advertising agency that even tried to dictate the headline that a newspaper should run on the front page when their client, a cell phone network provider, made some major announcement about their new call rates. The editor refused to give in, thank God, and also refused to run a straight promotional story, choosing to offer readers context about the wider industry and the implications of the network’s latest announcement.

Where are our media regulators when we need them? These are the types of issues they should be concerned with, instead of invoking “minimum standards” mostly when the media engage in legitimate critical political coverage and debate that the establishment is nervous about.

Els de Temmerman, the former editor-in-chief of The New Vision, once said (I don’t remember if it was during a private conversation or public speech) that in her experience at the newspaper where the government owns majority shares, major advertisers put more pressure on the newsroom than the President and other government officials.

It may well be right. But the Vision Group and Monitor Publications are big enough to stand up to these bullies of industry in the name of protecting the integrity of their journalism and business.

About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He is a former head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University, where he was also a senior lecturer, and a former executive editor of the Monitor.

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